Ethan began his pastoral ministry as an Assistant. After the Senior Pastor left the church of approximately 200, the search was on for a new leader. When Pastor Fredrick was hired, he made a strong first impression.
Ethan noted, “Fredrick resonated strongly with some of my focus.” He said that Fredrick focused on Christ and grace and he added that his “emphases were interesting and helpful.”
Amelia said, “Fredrick gave vocabulary to how I was thinking. He commanded a room.”
Pastor Fredrick told the search committee and his new congregation that he was the “victim” of the elders of the church he had served prior to coming. Amelia said she “felt bad for the guy.”
On the other hand, he was very complimentary of Ethan. He said to Amelia that he told the search committee “the only reason he was coming was because of Ethan.”
In hindsight, Ethan said, “He was already grooming me to be his ally.”
Those Dirty Red Flags
Ethan said there were red flags he should have seen, and to this day, several years later, clearly lives with a certain guilt that he failed himself and his congregation.
Pastor Fredrick was not actually about “grace.” Certainly “manipulation,” but not grace.
Early on Pastor Fredrick told them a strange story. A visitor to the church went to lunch with Fred and there was a huge thunder storm. Apparently, Fredrick and the visitor had a disagreement and the visitor dropped him off in the rain. The pastor appeared at the church completely soaked.
The story made no sense, but they figured, “Why would someone make up something like that?”
When Fredrick moved into his office, he immediately put black paper over the small window in his office door. Though they considered it weird, they figured he just wanted his privacy. Later some pornographic videos showed up from Netflix in the church office. He explained to the secretary it was just “some enemy of church” sending them.
One member walked into his office one day and there was male pornography on his screen.
Pastor Fredrick said his office was robbed at one point. But he said the only thing taken was disposable water bottles. Ethan noted, “All his expensive computer equipment? No.”
These stories didn’t make sense to Ethan and Amelia.
Oh, But He Preaches!
“Meanwhile, everyone loved his preaching.” He said, “The church grew considerably.” After three or four years there was around 300 to 400 in average attendance.
He added, “There was a ton of success. Finances were good.”
But Pastor Fredrick “created an environment that the goal was to keep the church successful at all costs.” Amelia noted the church had a lot of pride in itself for its success under Fredrick.
However, about a year and a half after the arrival of Pastor Fredrick, Ethan began to notice things that he had heard Fredrick say, write, and preach that he had seen in other sources. It looked like plagiarism to him.
He then found out that Fredrick was under investigation by the regional church court for plagiarism. Ethan went to Fredrick two times to talk with him about his discoveries.
Amelia told the story of Fredrick teaching a women’s Bible study and providing a handout that was presented as “his own.” She went home and googled the text and found it was someone else’s writing. When Ethan confronted him on it, Fredrick explained the other church, that had it online, had stolen from him.
Just Want to Believe
Ethan explained, “I wanted to believe and support my senior pastor.” He said, “I was confused. I wanted to be the loyal, supportive, associate pastor.”
To add to the confusion, “[Pastor Fredrick] was preaching that love gives the benefit of the doubt.” Ethan added, “He talked about how his assistant in his old church had been hacking him.” He just could not bring himself to be cynical like Amelia was. She explained she was no longer charmed by Pastor Fredrick after about nine months.
As Ethan struggled to make sense of the evils perpetrated by Pastor Fredrick, he did not have a category to recognize what was going on.
Ethan said, “There was a lot of deceit from him in every corner of the church. He seemed to be a sociopath. You could see he was looking for drama.“
He could not believe a pastor would be so deceptive.
Ethan said the pastor was “pitting one person against another.” But few knew what was going on. “People not [in leadership] had a such a hard time understanding how he could preach such good sermons and be so bad.”
It wasn’t until later that church leaders began to connect the dots…only after Pastor Fredrick had resigned. Then the stories came pouring in like an “avalanche.”
Ethan described Pastor Fredrick as having the “seared conscience” that Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 4:2 describes.
He “came to see this as descriptive of the pastor. There’s no conscience. It was burned over.“
The pastor, while under investigation, encouraged his elders and congregation to leave their denomination. The congregation voted to split the sheets, but both Ethan and Amelia struggled with the decision, with Amelia ultimately voting against her pastor.
The denomination, acting on its bylaws, continued the plagiarism trial despite the church vote, keeping Pastor Fredrick from moving out of the denomination and accountability to the denomination.
In the end, he was found guilty and “defrocked” from the pastorate.
Pastor Fredrick was put under the care of another church and not allowed to minister. However, he soon left that church and started his own, independent church.
The Learning Curve
There were a number of things Amelia and Ethan learned in their trial of being under toxic leadership in the church. They told their story that others may be comforted with the comfort they received from the Father of mercies as 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says.
- Emelia has found that she is “always leery of someone who plays the victim card” in the wake of this trial. She feels his victimhood should have been a red flag when he criticized his former church.
- Ethan said he is “skeptical of crazy stories that don’t make sense.” Prior to this experience he had operated with the underlying belief that a pastor could never be so deceptive. However, this incident has formed his understanding of the biblical concept of the seared conscience.
- Amelia and Ethan ask, “How do you keep your soft heart and at same time maintain a healthy discernment?” Having been burned by Pastor Fredrick and having believed his manipulative assurances, it is now easy to be hardened and see manipulation behind every rock.
- When speaking of muddling in the mess of the brokenness created by Pastor Fredrick, Ethan said, “There is a natural tendency is to run away. You don’t want to deal with the mess. Just want to get to a healthier place.” But Ethan believes that the “hard work of being with the people was very healing.” It was important to them to work through what had happened with others who went through it with them before moving on to another ministry.
- Pastor Fredrick always portrayed himself as the “chief of sinners,” as Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:16. But Ethan noted he would not confess specific sin. “There was a shield of humility that was about protecting his postion.”
This particular point was striking to me. In my research [see blog] and hearing story after story, a common denominator in abusive leadership is a lack of humility in the leader. However, I find there is often a veneer of humility that hides an aversion to admitting any particular sin.
Just as one person told me: “I was fine with Jesus dying for the world’s sins, but not so keen on Him dying for my sin.”
Advice to Other Survivors
When asked how they would advise others going through the mess of toxic leadership, Ethan and Amelia gave some helpful comments.
- “Try to give categories for them to process what is going on.” It was helpful for Ethan to start understanding the abusive leadership in categories like “sociopath” or “seered conscience.”
- “Maybe talk about Psalm 55 and people whose consciences are seered.” Ethan said, “People can actually be this way. Try to give them some context for what they are experiencing.“
- “Depending on the situation, some may need to get out. Someone has got to go…it may not be the problem pastor that goes!“
- And finally, “Considering Matthew 18: Go to the person.” Ethan went twice to him alone. He wonders now, “Maybe I should have taken an elder with me even if at risk of my job.“
In the end, Ethan expressed his sorrow over not seeing the signs of abusive leadership early on. He explained it cut to the core of his understanding of his calling. He asked himself if the pastorate really was his calling if he was so easily manipulated this way.
He noted that the shepherd of the sheep is called to “protect the sheep” and yet he feels that he was unable to do that.
However, experience teaches us that these trials instruct God’s people and it is rare that people get it right the first time around…or even the second or third time around.[James 1:2-4] God calls us to give the benefit of the doubt to our brothers and to forgive freely.[Matthew 18:23-35]
If grace is our default position, there are bound to be some failures in reading the signs of abusive leadership.
Ethan, Amelia, and Pastor Fredrick are not their real names.